Émile Benoit is doubtless the most renowned individual to emerge from Newfoundland's tiny
French-speaking community. Just as locals on the Port-au-Port peninsula regarded him as a fine
entertainer, provincial, national and international audiences alike admired his fiddling and
recognized him as an accomplished musician. But for years Émile Benoit worked, like most of
the people around him, as a fisherman.
After retiring from nearly sixty years of fishing in 1980, he concentrated primarily on his
music career with the help of Memorial University of Newfoundland professor of Folklore, Dr.
Gerald Thomas, who at that time had already spent several years studying the French-Newfoundland
culture on the Port-au-Port peninsula.
||Émile Benoit, n.d.
Benoit performed at a variety of festivals. He is seen here on stage
with his daughter Roberta.
From Colin Quigley Music from the Heart: Compositions of
a Folk Fiddler (Athens: ©1995) 5.
Émile Joseph Benoit was born March 24 1913 at Black Duck Brook on the Port-au-Port peninsula,
a product of the two groups that founded the French culture in Newfoundland and whose
descendants continue to propagate the province's French identity to this day: the Acadians and
the metropolitan French.
One does not have to go back very far in Émile's lineage to reach his connection to France.
Although his father, Amédée, and grandfather, Henri, were born in Newfoundland, Émile's
great-grandfather was a native of France, probably having arrived in Newfoundland from St. Malo,
in Brittany. His mother, Adéline Duffenais, was, on the other hand, an Acadian whose ancestors
came from Cape Breton Island. The marriage produced eight children, including two girls who
Émile left school after completing only three grades. With the responsibility of being the
eldest of three sons, he had to help support the family when his father died at an early age.
At the age of nine he had begun fishing with his father, and by the age of fifteen he was
fishing with his brother Joachim, then thirteen.
It was at the age of twelve that Émile experienced many firsts: he first saw the inside of a
school room when he was twelve years old, began learning English at the age of twelve and he
received his very first real violin at that age as well. He had, however, owned a couple of
homemade violins crafted by his father and by his uncle, and it was at that time that developed
a rarely paralleled passion for the fiddle.
At twenty-one he married his first wife, Roseanne, and together they had five children.
However, Émile's wife died young from tuberculosis, only a couple of weeks after delivering the
fifth child, a girl, who also died. The thirty year-old widower raised the remaining four
children with the assistance of three sisters who moved in to help out. Seven years later, he
married Rita Collier and they had nine children. Émile Benoit died September 2 1992, at the age
of 79 in the Sir Thomas Roddick Hospital in Stephenville after a bout with bone cancer.
Although his professional music career began in 1973 when he took second place in a violin
contest in Stephenville, Émile Benoit's first public music performances date back to his teen
years, when he would play weddings and dances for free.
|Émile Benoit, n.d.
Émile imitates the 'Sleepy Fiddler.'
From Colin Quigley Music from the Heart: Compositions
of a Folk Fiddler (Athens: ©1995) 179.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Émile brought his foot-tapping musical style to one festival
after another, both at home in Newfoundland and around the world: Une Longue Veillée at Cape
St. George, the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival in St. John's, the Jazz and Heritage
Festival in New Orleans and the Mariposa festival in Toronto, as well as shows in lands as
diverse as France, England and Norway.
In 1980 he went on tour with "Pistroli en Atlantique", a group consisting of popular and
traditional francophone musicians; his career also saw him perform alongside other traditional
Newfoundland artists such as Kelly Russell, Noel Dinn, Pamela Morgan and Jim Payne, all of
whom admit to having been shaped in some way or another by his unique style. He appeared on
French and English-language television and radio programmes such as Peter Gzowski's Ninety
Minutes Live, while at the same time playing the bar scene in St. John's and on his native west
Émile released three albums during his career, starting with Emile's Dream in 1979, It Comes
from the Heart in 1982 and Vive la Rose in 1992. These were not, however, the only recordings
to exhibit the talent of Émile Benoit; he also appeared in the Walt Disney production Portraits
of Canada at Expo 86, and was featured in a BBC-aired film entitled The Magic Fiddle and in the
National Film Board's From the Heart: Canadian Folk Artists.
Several awards have been bestowed upon Émile Benoit in recognition of his contribution to both
English-Canadian and French-Canadian society. In 1988, Memorial University of Newfoundland
awarded Émile Benoit an honourary doctor of laws degree, while in the same year the the
Fédération des Francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador granted him the Prix Roger Champagne
for his contributions to the province's francophone population.
Also in 1988, the Société Nationale de l'Acadie recognized Émile with the Médaille Léger-Comeau,
whose past recipients include such distinguished individuals as former French president François
Mitterand. Meanwhile, in 1992, Émile was handed a Lifetime Achievement Award by the
Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council.
||Émile Benoit, 1979.
Émile (right) performing with Rufus Guinchard at the St. John's Folk
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(Coll - 154, E 1043), Memorial University of Newfoundland,
St. John's, Newfoundland.
It is worthy of note that while Émile had no formal training in music and music composition, he
was a master of the fiddle and created much of his own music, perhaps as many as 200 songs.
Because of his creativity, he was the subject of a doctoral thesis at the University of
California entitled "Creative Processes in Musical Composition: French Newfoundland Fiddler
Honours continued to come to him even after his death: a seniors' housing facility bearing his
name opened in Stephenville Crossing in 1994 and he posthumously won an award at the 1993 East
Coast Music Awards.
Émile Benoit was, however, more than a musician. In addition to being a father, a husband, a
farmer, a fisherman and a locally reputed jack-of-all-trades which saw him serve as doctor,
dentist, veterinarian, carpenter and midwife (he had helped one of his sisters during a rather
long and laborious birth by turning the child before delivery), Émile was also a gifted
He was able to recount stories from his youth, and often did so at his shows and public
appearances. By his own admission, he may have forgotten some tales he learned as a boy simply
because his love for the violin overpowered his love for telling stories. Yet he boasted a large
repertoire of tales that he would tell in a style all his own, adding his own personal touch to
the features of oral tradition he had learned as a child.
Amongst French Newfoundlanders, opinions of Émile Benoit varied over the years, moving from an
early humorous perception to a later open admiration and pride in his achievements. For he has
quite possibly left a legacy only rarely said of entire groups of people. Even in the face of
impending death he remained true to his love for the violin, performing as late as July 1992,
scarcely two months before his death.
Émile Benoit summed up his own character and attested to his sense of humour when he said the
following of his mission in life:
"Faire rire le monde et pis assayer d'mette le monde hereux. C'est euh, c'est ma vie ça... je me
garâcherais à la mer si j'pouvais vous faire assez, vous faire rire. Ouais, ouais. Pis j'sais pas,
j'sais pas m'-nager" (Thomas 1985 296).
[To make people laugh and to make people happy. That's my life... I would toss myself in the sea if
it would make you laugh enough. Yep. And I don't know how to swim].
© 1998, Jeff Butt
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